Trek across rugged lava flows and admire lava shields, cones, and pit craters on the astonishing Napau Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Young landforms, long-range views, and solitude await a backcountry day hiker here in the park’s East Rift Wilderness.
The East Rift Zone of Kilauea Volcano has seen some of the most dramatic recent eruptions on the Big Island. Hiking to Napau Crater on the Napau Trail—about a 12-mile round-tripper—gets you acquainted with the otherworldly results. Both day hikers and backpackers camping at the crater need a permit from the Kilauea Visitor Center.
This moderate hike kicks off from the Mauna Ulu Trailhead, reached via Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. This is roughly a half-hour drive from the visitor center. You’ll find a restroom at the trailhead but no drinking water. On that note: You need to bring plenty of water for this adventure, as you’ll find none along the way. Sun protection is also paramount, given most of the hike proceeds through wide-open lava fields and only sparse tree cover.
The first part of the trek partly follows the old route of Chain of Craters Road, ravaged by the eruption of the Mauna Ulu lava shield between 1969 and 1974. Mauna Ulu put on quite the show as it emerged, with overspilling lava flooding the Aloi and Alae craters and scorching forests. The big swell of the lava shield is obvious to the east as you hike along.
Cairns (rock piles) show the way through partly vegetated pahoehoe and aa lava flows. You’ll see “lava trees” resulting from resistant lava molds around destroyed trees, plus Pele’s hair (stringy threads of spewed lava) and Pele’s tears (streamlined lava globs) among the cinders and pumice.
A mile into the hike, you can take a spur trail to climb the 150-foot cinder/spatter cone Puu Huluhulu (Shaggy Hill). The Napau Trail proceeds generally eastward from that fork across lava lands. Enjoy views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to the north and Mauna Ulu to the south.
A little past the two-mile marker, you’ll reach the yawning Makaopuhi Crater. This is the biggest pit crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Pit craters form when underground cracks are associated with eruptive activity near the surface, causing the overlying rock to collapse.
Beyond Makaopuhi Crater, the Napau Trail passes into rainforest grown up on older lava flows. A fork heading south is the Naulu Trail, an alternative approach that begins at the Kealakomo parking area on Chain of Craters Road south of the Mauna Ulu Trailhead.
Continuing east, you’ll pass walls left over from the Naupa Pulu Station. This was a so-called “pulu factory,” where the silky fibers found in the fronds of native hapuu tree-ferns were harvested in the mid-to late 1800s. The harvest was a fairly short-lived industry that supplied pulu as stuffing for pillows and mattresses.
Roughly seven miles in, you’ll reach Napau Crater, another pit crater along the East Rift Zone. There’s a backcountry campground here for overnighting in the wilds. From the Napau Crater overlook, you can see the vent of Puu Oo, which erupted from the early 1980s (overlapping with a Mauna Loa eruption at that point) to 2018. This is your turnaround point for the day hike, although the Napau Trail continues on another two miles to the base of Puu Oo.
Return the way you came. Marvel again at the contrast between green rainforest and ohia/fern scrub and the black raw lava, the far-reaching volcano views, and the opportunity to walk on some very freshly forged ground!
-When crossing the lava fields on this hike, follow the easily seen cairns closely. The lava crust in many places is fragile, making it easy to break through and injure yourself.
-When you get your permit for the hike, you’ll be able to get the most up-to-date information on current conditions from park staff. As the eruptions of Mauna Ulu and Puu Oo make clear, volcanic activity can break out at any time on Kilauea’s flanks, with trail closures a potential result.